Monday, February 29, 2016

A general without its general

How does a major political party deconstruct? This isn't a rhetorical question. I mean that "how" literally. What does it actually look like? Is it broad meltdown, top to bottom? Or is there some kind of triage?

One scenario is now taking shape, and the more I think about it, the more plausible it seems.

The description of the current state of play in Saturday's piece in the Times about the GOP's frantic and feckless anti-Trump scrambling is pretty devastating:
"Despite all the forces arrayed against Mr. Trump, the interviews show, the party has been gripped by a nearly incapacitating leadership vacuum and a paralytic sense of indecision and despair, as he has won smashing victories in South Carolina and Nevada. Donors have dreaded the consequences of clashing with Mr. Trump directly. Elected officials have balked at attacking him out of concern that they might unintentionally fuel his populist revolt. And Republicans have lacked someone from outside the presidential race who could help set the terms of debate from afar."
So is the admission that the House that Karl Built simply doesn't exist anymore: 
"Former Gov. Michael O. Leavitt of Utah, a top adviser to Mr. Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the party was unable to come up with a united front to quash Mr. Trump’s campaign.
"'There is no mechanism,” Mr. Leavitt said. 'There is no smoke-filled room. If there is, I’ve never seen it, nor do I know anyone who has. This is going to play out in the way that it will.'”
But the money line actually comes earlier in the piece: "... the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, has laid out a plan that would have lawmakers break with Mr. Trump explicitly in a general election." In other words, the GOP will become its Congressional caucus, and they will cut loose the RNC. The party is not only heading into the general election without a general at the head of its troops, but it will explicitly define itself -- nominally for this cycle, but effectively for the next few, at least -- as a Congressional party only. It will concede the presidency -- and probably the Senate -- to the Dems for the next decade or so in order to preserve its current foothold.

Of course, Congressional party vs. presidential party is not new. The Dems were the Congressional party during the Nixon, Reagan and Bush 41 eras. They moved back toward being a presidential party by nominating Bill Clinton--for the first time in 20 years, a candidate who actually had a chance to win -- and that would have continued to build had Al Gore not demonstrated his preference to lose. Following the 2000 election, they slipped back into Congressland, and maintained that until Lehman Bros. handed them the presidency, too. But over the course of Obama's two terms, the pendulum swing swung, and the Dems nationalized, while the GOP devolved back to Congress. 

And now that's about to be reified for the next decade, if not longer. But what's happening may be more than that. The Republicans may be so far gone that they can't hold onto Congress, either. They may be so riven and -- in the correct description of Lindsay Graham -- batshit crazy that they can't tie their shoes in the morning, and formerly sinecured House seats will be available to people who can. More structurally, it may be that you can't actually commit to just the Congressional level without losing that, too. It may be that a modern political party in America has to at least try to operate both nationally and locally... that the thinking, the recruitment, the infrastructure, the funding mechanisms, the message shaping, the lobbying strategy -- all of that and more -- can't be sustained by just hunkering down in the House. In other words, maybe you can effectively be a Congressional party, but you can't explicitly be one. 

And in that case, we could wind up witnessing a decade of clinging to the House like a branch on a cliff, until that branch breaks and the party just plunges to the bottom of the arroyo. 

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